Pulse branded itself as the hottest gay bar in Orlando. It was a sprawling bar, with several rooms, several dance floors, and a few bars. It served food and drinks – and a rousing good time. There was a patio out back, too. In the lead up to their Latin night that Saturday, the bar was encouraging people to attend on Facebook. It was just a regular weekend.
The music was loud inside Pulse and the lights were low. Mateen would enter and leave prior to coming back with his weapon. When he did come back and did start opening fire, not everyone realized what was happening right away: the loud music and dim lighting caused widespread confusion for the patrons.
In the aftermath, the list of victims would grow. Five dead, 10 dead, 20 dead – eventually the number rising to 49. The ages of the victims ranged from 18 to 50.
It wasn’t just the youth. It wasn’t just the old. Family and friends wanted answers. Why? The reason for the attack has been blamed on many things, from religion to simple hate at the sight of two men kissing each other. Whatever the reason – hope wasn’t extinguished that morning. A community began coming together – and still is.
Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan woke up on June 12 that fateful morning to a flurry of frantic phone calls. A mass shooting in a district she represents and at a club she knew well.
“When I first got on scene, one of my friends, who is a local reporter, called me and he was crying and I said, ‘it’s going to be OK,’ and I looked down and I realized I was standing in a pile of blood on the street,” she says. “There were two bodies behind me and I had never seen anything like this.”
In the days after the attack, the FBI, Florida Department of Law Enforcement, local police and other law enforcement organizations all began investigating with the attack with intensity. “No one can prepare you for what those officers encountered that night,” Orlando Police Chief John Mina told reporters. “They stood toe-to-toe and face-to-face with a mass murderer.”
But it wasn’t just police that would face terror that night. While they faced down a psychopath with a rifle, first responders were doing everything they could to keep the injured alive.
Today, many of them are dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the night. When it was time to suit up and save lives, though, they were America’s finest. No one could have prepared them for what they saw.
SWAT team member Luke Austin carried a man with four gunshot wounds in his legs, hip and shoulder out of the bar after Mateen had fled that night. “Stay with me, keep fighting!” Austin shouted. “We will get you to safety, stay with us!” Austin’s account was chronicled by the Associated Press. But he isn’t the only one.
In all, 41 dispatchers, EMTs, paramedics and firefighters assisted on the scene that night. Nearly a year later, they were honored by Orange County for their work and sacrifice that night, the Orlando Sentinel reports. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, with tears in her eyes, thanked the crowd of heroes for their brave work.
“You just instinctively do something that most don’t do. You run into things that most of us run away from,” Jacobs said. “Today, our firefighters have to be prepared to be like medics on the battlefield.”
Sheehan, the Orange County commissioner, would agree with that statement. “[Pulse nightclub was in] an area I walk all the time,” she said. “This is my district and it had become a warzone.”
And it was.
One of the most widely shared photos from that night was the image of a Kevlar helmet with a bullet hole in it; the helmet saved the officer’s life. Police described the final exchange with Mateen as a hail of gunfire. No officers were killed in the shootout.